During the campaign, Donald Trump characterized himself as a champion of working-class voters who felt left behind and disconnected from more prosperous parts of the country. And Trump's historic upset victory last week was fueled by working-class voters in the Rust Belt and elsewhere who believed in this promise.
Many of the counties that flipped from voting for Barack Obama in 2012 to Donald Trump in 2016 were in the Rust Belt swing states of Ohio, Wisconsin and Michigan. In his victory speech he reached out to those voters again, saying, "The forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer."
The Trump transition team is reaching out to economists to serve as policy advisers. NPR did a little fishing, and found one of them. We called up labor economist Richard Burkhauser of Cornell, who signed a petition against Hillary Clinton's economic plan during the campaign. He tells NPR that Trump's team just reached out to him and asked him "if I was interested in applying for a job." So will he take a job with the new administration? "It's a very exciting possibility," Burkhauser says.
Burkhauser is a free market economist who tends to vote Republican. He says with Republicans controlling the White House, Congress and the Senate, after years of frustrating gridlock, he thinks the new administration could actually get important things done to boost economic growth. "I think it would be extraordinarily exciting to be part of an administration that uses Republican ideas to do something for workers in the middle who have not enjoyed the benefits of economic growth for the last 20 or 30 years," he says.
But could you do that just with Republican ideas? "I don't think so," says David Autor, an economist at MIT who is known for his influential work on international trade with the U.S. and China — both its benefits and its devastating impact on some Americans.
Autor says Trump won with a fiery, populist, kick-the-bums-out-of-Washington campaign that promised to help working- and middle-class voters. But Autor says, "I think the Republican Party has done extremely little for them."
Autor says he is not registered with any political party. But he says if Trump really wants to help people left behind, this task is not easy. He says President Obama was working on it, too, and made some progress. And Autor says Trump needs to reach out beyond traditional Republican economists, because they mostly focus on cutting taxes and regulation.
"Yes, the irony is that if the Trump administration were looking for expertise in policy to improve the living conditions and working conditions of less affluent Americans, they would look to a lot of Democratic and left-of-center scholars who have devoted their political and academic careers to trying to improve exactly on those fronts," Autor says.
He says it might be a moonshot, but if Trump can draw from the best ideas on the left and the right, then we might see a really effective mix of policies: tax credits for the working class that conservatives support; and help with education and health care costs, which are traditionally liberal ideas.
In his victory speech, Trump appeared to be casting a wide net for advisers.
"For those who have chosen not to support me in the past, of which there were a few people," Trump said to some chuckles, "I'm reaching out to you for your guidance and your help so that we can work together and unify our great country."
And he added, "We will call upon the best and brightest to leverage their tremendous talent for the benefit of all."
Still, nobody from the Trump campaign has called Autor. And even if they did, he says he is among many economists who would have a hard time forgetting Trump's campaign, which he saw as marked by race-baiting, misogyny and xenophobia.
"I think many of us who would be happy to support a sensible policy mission would still be extremely hesitant to be a part of that team knowing the moral depths it doesn't hesitate to sink to," Autor says.
Meanwhile, as Trump builds his team, Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren will be watching. She fired a letter at Trump this week criticizing his transition team picks so far as too tied to Wall Street and big business.
Warren wrote that those picks and the people rumored to be in the running for Cabinet positions are "a slew of Wall Street bankers, industry insiders, and special interest lobbyists." She says these ties to Wall Street and big business show Trump putting the interests of the rich and powerful above those of the working-class families. Trump, she says, "already appear[s] to be failing" on his promise to help working families rather than the rich and powerful. And if he doesn't change course, she warns:
"Let me be clear. Should you refuse, I will oppose you, every step of the way, for the next four years. I will champion the millions of Americans you will fail to protect. I will track your every move, and I will remind Americans, every day, of the actions you take that fail them. And I will not be the only one watching. The millions of Americans who voted for you — and the millions who didn't — will all be watching you."
At the same time, Warren offered to help Trump find qualified advisers.